11 August 2011
What is Wisconsin On?
This has been a busy news cycle, I really want to respond to all the craziness going on but I'll keep myself focused on what makes me most livid: the recall elections in Wisconsin. Democrats gained only two of the necessary three senate seats, which means the republicans maintain their majority in all branches of Wisconsin state government. This is not a victory for the left as some might argue due to the jolly-good-challenge we gave to republicans in their home districts. This is not a victory for the right either. They did effectively nothing. This is a defeat for the left.
The right merely spent a lot of money, they ran a lot of boring ads and pulled some dumb tricks. The Alberta Darling ad in that link is even about the issues! I would be singing a different tune if we lost to this ad, but we lost on the issues. The left couldn't build a movement against incoherent economics with the most energized base seen in decades. Once again the left grasps defeat from the jaws of victory.
There are two common arguments for why that I often hear from the left. The first, taken by Platypus among other groups, says that the Left has fallen into ideological incoherence and therefore lacks the organizational clarity to get anything done. Fortunately for Wisconsin there's no need to clarify the conditions of possibility for grasping the totality, or square the circle of decentralized planning. The arguments against Tea Party economics are sitting in Paul Krugman's NYTimes editorials or even the Standard and Poor's US bond downgrade. S&P says that, "We have changed our assumption on [the American budget base-line scenario] because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues." I'm not saying that S&P or the Keynesians have any idea how to overcome this historical crisis in capitalism, but they at least have arguments convincing enough in the short term to counter that Alberta Darling schlock!
The second major candidate for the left's failure is closer to what Walker brings up in his most recent post. He states that, "The raw material of politics has been reduced to the individual, the aggregate, and the market – for the left, as the right. This is a terrain upon which the right can thrive, while the left is limited to admonishing people to buy fair trade and fighting rearguard actions in defense of now parochial interests," which is to say that contemporary subjectivity leaves traditional left consciousness inadequate. As I've argued elsewhere however, the protests in Wisconsin offered renewed hopes and novel ways of experiencing the collective and politics as such. One could argue this momentary glimmer of light was not sufficient to shift consciousness, but if the left can't capitalize on glimmers of light then we'll never escape from the depths of this historical cave.
As I see it the failure of the left in Wisconsin is much simpler: a failure to be bold, innovative, or even serious about organizational forms. The recall efforts were led by the Democratic party and the moneyed unions like SEIU, AFSCME and to some extent the national AFL-CIO. They did a crappy job. They flew in operatives to craft social media strategy, develop talking points, recruit volunteers without developing leadership, and occasionally call some actions without doing the necessary turn-out or organizing to make them successful (to all my comrades who toiled so hard on walkerville I'm not belittling your work, you're not the ones to blame).
There are any number of organizational strategies that could have been tried. There could have been networks of autonomous community councils that made decisions and took ownership over each community's recall effort. Unions could have done legal shop-floor actions like work-to-rule to put pressure on businesses funding republican candidates. Union internationals could have flooded Wisconsin with organizers to launch ambitious and strategic new organizing campaigns to build and sustain the momentum. These campaigns could have integrated the community in rallies, street theater or boycott work to give energized people a way to plug in and build leadership beyond just knocking on doors and making phone calls (probably the most boring movement work I know of). My favorite idea that I heard was to fund campaign offices/community centers around Wisconsin which would have acted as symbolic and practical hubs for locally based organizing and then persisted after the recall elections as politicized community spaces. This would have institutionalized and operationalized the feelings of solidarity and collective involvement the protests symbolically opened and lay the groundwork for continued momentum.
All of these have something in common: they're based on grass-roots/rank-and-file, democratic (especially in the Ranciereian sense), and decentralized forms that give individuals a sense of ownership and agency and embrace creativity. Instead we saw at best the facile deployment of the militaristic OFA canvassing model or the organizing from afar so popular with SEIU. And the reason why is simple, to reduce the volatility of mass movements and evade the sticky-ness of trying to move consciousness. As the self-proclaimed "grown-ups" of the movement they can't afford to empower the ungovernable masses. They wanted to only have enough momentum for them to control and didn't want to have bad PR moments like a worker going off book and calling Scott Walker a fascist. God forbid some nobody nurse ruins their expertly laid media strategy.
This brings me to what I'd like to claim was the real impasse in Wisconsin: the hegemony of ossified and timid organizations over any large scale left organizing. This is a material impasse as much as an ideological one, and it calls for material solutions. For young radicals and revolutionaries like myself it seems the only options to get work done are to join a big ossified organization and try to do some good work despite the context. After this defeat in Wisconsin, one might as well work for a bank and try to foreclose on as few people as possible. The only other option, to live life precariously and get involved as much as you can with dynamic work, falls apart as soon as one realizes these organizations are so strapped for resources they can barely keep alive, let alone integrate and develop new leaders.
I do not mean to deny the enormous importance of a crisis in left ideology or difficulties regarding contemporary subjectivity. But I feel like these aren't the lessons we need to take from Wisconsin. We need to find ways to initiate, support and grow creative and powerful grass-roots/rank-and-file organizational forms. We need to solve the material problems of feeding, housing, taking mental care of, connecting and developing young revolutionaries. They're waiting for it, and without it we're left with this: